09 September 2009

Saint Peter Claver

9 SEPTEMBER 2009. Today the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Peter Claver a Jesuit priest and missionary. Canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII, Saint Peter Claver's story is remarkable.

Saint Peter Claver was born in 1581, the son of a Catalonian farmer. He was educated at the University of Barcelona, and at the age of 20 joined the Jesuit novitiate. During his studies, Saint Peter Claver was continually exhorted to evangelize the Spanish possessions in the new world (it is said that the door keeper at Saint Peter Claver's college received a vision of the Saint's future from God and continued to exhort him to go to the new world).

In 1601 Saint Peter Claver landed in Cartagena, where for more than 40 years he ministered to the needs of the Africans that were being hideously sold and trafficked there as slaves bound for the United States. At the time of Saint Peter Claver's work in Cartagena, it was the hub of the slave trade for the U.S., which had already been in existence for 100 years. As many as 10,000 slaves from the coast of Africa were brought into Cartagena each year. It is said the one-third to half of the slaves died in transit to Cartagena, as the conditions on the slave ships was so inhuman and terrible. Pope Paul III condemned the slave trade and Pope Pius IX referred to the slave trade as "supreme villainy," but it continued to flourish.

Each time a slave ship reached Cartagena, Saint Peter Claver would enter its hold to minister to the slave captives. After the slaves were herded out of the ship, Saint Peter Claver would continue to work among them, going into the pens where they were kept, to offer them medicine and food and to tend their other material needs. As the minister to those most in need, Saint Peter Claver was known for often saying: "We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips."

With help from interpreters, Saint Peter Claver gave basic instructions in religion to all those he encountered who were being hideously bought and sold as the possessions of others. During his 40 years of ministry in Cartagena, the Saint instructed and baptized more than 300,000 slaves.

Saint Peter Claver publicly declared himself to be "the slave of the slaves forever."

Beyond his ministry to the slaves, Saint Peter Claver was also known as the apostle of Cartagena, preaching in the city square and giving missions to sailors and traders. However, during those missions, he avoided accepting the hospitality of planters and slave owners and, instead, lodged in the slave quarters. In fact, Saint Peter Claver became a moral force in Cartagena that slowly improved the state of the slaves there. But, his strong stands against the oppression and mistreatment of the African peoples made many enemies for Saint Peter Claver.

Not only were those directly involved in the slave trade his enemies, but Saint Peter Claver was often accused of indiscreet zeal, and of profaning the Sacraments by giving them to Africans, whom many at the time said did not possess a soul. Fashionable women of Cartagena even refused to enter the churches where the Saint assembled African peoples for instruction and the Sacraments. Even Saint Peter Claver's superiors were influenced by the many criticisms that reached them about the zealot missionary to the slaves. But, Saint Peter Claver persisted in his ministry; forsaken by men, Saint Peter Claver was sustained by God.

After a long illness, Saint Peter Claver died on September 8, 1654. Although the city's leaders had been aggravated by Saint Peter Claver's constant entreaties on behalf of the enslaved Africans, they nonetheless ordered that Saint Peter Claver be given a burial at public expense and with great pomp. Only after his death did the people of the city truly recognize the magnitude of the missionary work that Saint Peter Claver had undertaken for so many years among them, to those most in need.

It is said that many came to believe that God only spared Cartagena from disaster because of Saint Peter Claver's presence.


God of mercy and love,
you offer all peoples
the dignity of sharing in your life.
By the example and prayers of Saint Peter Claver,
strengthen us to overcome all racial hatreds
and to love each other as brothers and sisters.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.


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